NBA Metrics 101: The Best Playmakers in the NBA, According to the Numbers
"We need a f--king playmaker," the four-time MVP exclaimed during the Cleveland Cavaliers' rough January, per ESPN.com's Dave McMenamin. "I'm not saying you can just go find one, like you can go outside and see trees. I didn't say that."
But what exactly is a playmaker anyway? Someone who scores in volume? Someone who helps others score in volume? Someone who can produce with efficiency?
And who are the best of the best playmakers at each position?
For our purposes, we'll define playmakers as those who can either create their own offense or help others score. Ideally, the players in question can do both, since that's the easiest way to earn top marks.
- Determine how many of a player's points per game came in unassisted fashion, since spot-up shooting and cutting don't fall under the playmaking umbrella. This was done using NBA.com's data, though it's worth noting there's a potential drawback by not incorporating self-created free-throw attempts.
- Add a player's points created by assist per game, as that takes into account passes leading to more than two points.
- Divide the sum by possessions used, then multiply by 100 (for the sake of aesthetics).
To qualify for the rankings, players must have suited up in at least 30 games by Friday, Feb. 3, and used at least 15 possessions per contest. A possession, in this case, is defined as finishing a play with a field-goal attempt, trip to the free-throw stripe, assist or turnover.
Then, they had to emerge with a strong score in the following calculation for playmaker rating:
The rankings are organized in objective fashion, and only what's happened in 2016-17 matters.
No. 3 Point Guard: Ricky Rubio, Minnesota Timberwolves
Unassisted Points Per Game: 5.16
Points Created by Assist Per Game: 18.42
Playmaker Rating: 126.67
Ricky Rubio may not be a scoring threat, but his ability to find open teammates remains nothing short of spectacular. His feel for the game has improved in 2016-17, even as he's been surrounded by trade rumors, according to ESPN's Marc Stein and Chris Haynes, and a young team growing into its attempted ascent of the Western Conference ladder.
Just look at what he told Sports Illustrated's Andrew Sharp in January: "I think I'm getting better at controlling the tempo of the game, controlling the ball. I don't get as many turnovers as I used to early in my career. So that's one part that I try to improve. Another part, not just the shooting, but scoring. I gotta be more aggressive. But at the same time, run the team. It's just something, 'Should I run the team or should I score?' I gotta learn how to balance that, and be more aggressive sometimes."
Rubio is averaging the fewest turnovers per game of his NBA career (2.3). Ditto for turnovers per 36 minutes (2.6), though the even more telling turnover percentage (22.0) is still in line with his lifetime numbers (21.5).
But what hasn't declined is his work as a distributor.
The Spanish point guard cedes touches to Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine quite frequently, but he often does so in a way that sets them up for easy buckets. He's averaging 8.1 assists, and that's saying nothing of the times he gets them to the free-throw line or begins a series of quick ball movements to earn an open jumper.
Rubio remains an assist maestro, proving (again) you can be an elite playmaker even when your jumper is broken.
Honorable Mentions: Tim Frazier, Jeff Teague, John Wall
Dishonorable Mentions: Jordan Crawford, Emmanuel Mudiay, Marcus Smart
No. 2 Point Guard: James Harden, Houston Rockets
Unassisted Points Per Game: 24.98
Points Created by Assist Per Game: 27.04
Playmaker Rating: 127.81
Players who eat up almost all their teams' possessions don't tend to fare well in this metric, since there's typically a trade-off between volume and efficiency—the latter of which is prized here. But James Harden can do it all for the Houston Rockets, as he remains an incredible source of offense even while assuming astronomical responsibilities.
As a scorer, Harden has no trouble creating his own looks. His knack for finishing plays around the rim and pulling up for off-the-dribble jumpers allows him to average more unassisted points per game than anyone not named Russell Westbrook. That's even without factoring in his free-throw shooting.
Passing is what pushes Harden ahead of his former teammate, as well as all but two qualified players at his new position.
Though he uses nearly four fewer possessions than Westbrook during a typical contest, he creates an additional 3.6 points per game off his passes by leading teammates into open spots. He and Houston's offensive schemes enjoy a mutually symbiotic relationship; they allow him to rack up assists in the quick-paced efforts, and he consistently sets up his teammates beyond the arc with perfect feeds.
No. 1 Point Guard: Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers
Unassisted Points Per Game: 14.75
Points Created by Assist Per Game: 21.81
Playmaker Rating: 138.55
When healthy, Chris Paul remains the NBA's resident point god.
He does everything well, as you can see by his leaguewide ranks in these relevant categories:
|Unassisted Points Per Game||14.75||No. 16|
|Points Created by Assist Per Game||21.81||No. 4|
|Possessions Used Per Game||26.38||No. 20|
It's the lack of continuity in the third column that makes him so special.
Paul is an elite player off the bounce, routinely getting to the spot of his choosing and knocking down mid-range jumpers. That ability to glide through the lane and take only the best shots is what made him the league's No. 9 jump-shooter in a previous set of Metrics 101 rankings, and it helps him again here.
So does the pinpoint accuracy and volume necessary to add more points per game off passes than anyone other than James Harden, John Wall and Russell Westbrook.
But to do all this while using fewer possessions than just 19 other players? That's what pushes Paul over the top, giving him the top score at any position.
No. 3 Shooting Guard: Jamal Crawford, Los Angeles Clippers
Unassisted Points Per Game: 8.49
Points Created by Assist Per Game: 7.02
Playmaker Rating: 91.65
Say what you will about Father Time, but he hasn't affected Jamal Crawford's shot-creating abilities. The 36-year-old shooting guard still has some of the league's smoothest handles, allowing him to dazzle and knock defenders onto their heels as he pulls up for yet another marginally contested jumper.
Some players are just better at working off the bounce and scoring in spite of heavy defensive pressure, and Crawford continues to fall into that category.
He might not fit the traditional "playmaker" mold, as Crawford rarely looks for other members of the Los Angeles Clippers, while he's always seeking scoring opportunities. But he makes plays through his individual shooting prowess, which can be just as valuable.
Sure, his "other" contributions limit his ceiling. But his skill also elevates his floor, just as it has for so many years.
"Jamal's so talented that he'll start being a passer and setting people up because he doesn't feel it," head coach Doc Rivers told Dan Woike of the Los Angeles Daily News. "And, we need him to shoot."
Don't worry. More often than not, he will.
Honorable Mentions: Will Barton, C.J. McCollum, Dwyane Wade
Dishonorable Mentions: Avery Bradley, J.J. Redick, Klay Thompson
No. 2 Shooting Guard: Nicolas Batum, Charlotte Hornets
Unassisted Points Per Game: 6.96
Points Created by Assist Per Game: 13.85
Playmaker Rating: 92.03
"He does a little bit of everything for us," Charlotte Hornets head coach Steve Clifford said about Nicolas Batum, per The Oregonian's Joe Freeman. "He guards primary scorers some nights. He's a cornerstone of our franchise. He's made a huge difference in our team [with] his basketball IQ and his versatility at both ends of the floor."
The defensive ability is irrelevant for our purposes. The offensive versatility, however, is not.
Batum doesn't often create his own looks, though he is capable of doing so. He prefers to set up in spot-up situations or cut to the hoop for an inside finish. Instead, it's his passing that sets him apart.
Thanks to his 6'8" frame, Batum enjoys the luxury of analyzing the court over most players at his position. Even more importantly, he has the distributing chops necessary to capitalize when he sees a play developing. He doesn't hesitate to squeeze the rock into tight spaces, and the Hornets routinely use him as a secondary hub alongside Kemba Walker.
Batum is one of only 14 players averaging at least six assists and fewer than three turnovers per contest. But of that group, he joins Draymond Green as one of just two who meet the criteria without logging any minutes at the 1.
No. 1 Shooting Guard: DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors
Unassisted Points Per Game: 22.8
Points Created by Assist Per Game: 9.38
Playmaker Rating: 102.72
No NBA player does more as a scorer while making it so hard on himself.
DeMar DeRozan doesn't rely on his virtually nonexistent three-point stroke, instead preferring to attack the basket and launch constant mid-range assaults. While many modern players turn up their noses at lengthy twos in favor of working from more efficient zones, DeRozan has made his living on pull-ups and turnaround jumpers from those very spots.
But that's not all.
He also creates an inordinate number of his own looks. Though 87.5 percent of his sporadic triples come after a teammate's feed, he requires assists on just 21.1 percent of his two-pointers. Rather than cutting and spotting up, he prefers to back down an opponent or dribble into his looks, taking advantage of his strength and vastly improved touch while fighting through contact.
Only James Harden and Russell Westbrook score more unassisted points per game, and they each do so while using far more possessions. DeRozan has become the unabashed master of providing nontraditional—and still valuable—offense, which allows him to emerge as the league's top playmaking shooting guard with room to spare.
No. 3 Small Forward: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Unassisted Points Per Game: 15.16
Points Created by Assist Per Game: 12.8
Playmaker Rating: 100.71
The Milwaukee Bucks' decision to let Giannis Antetokounmpo develop point guard skills has worked out nicely. Cue Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins and his perfect description of the aptly named "Greek Freak."
"Among the NBA's legion of stretchy giants, Kevin Durant is the scorer, Anthony Davis the slasher," Jenkins wrote. "Antetokounmpo is the creator, traversing half the court with four Sasquatch steps, surveying traffic like a big rig over smart cars. Durant and Davis try to play point guard. Antetokounmpo actually does it, dropping dimes over and around defenders' heads, leading the Bucks in every major category."
Antetokounmpo logs minutes across the board, frequently bringing up the ball on one end and then settling in as a rim protector on the other. When head coach Jason Kidd subs him out, he often brings in a power forward. But typical lineup conventions would have this 22-year-old listed as a wing.
We're splitting the difference here and calling him a small forward, though that's arbitrary.
What's not up for debate, however, is Antetokounmpo's skill. His vision is phenomenal, especially for someone who's been playing basketball for less than a decade. And he doesn't just see the court well; he has the touch necessary to find open teammates, usually putting the ball right between the numbers.
As soon as he's able to create his own jumpers—right now, his long-range attempts only come in catch-and-shoot situations without hesitation—he'll have a chance to surpass everyone as a playmaker.
Honorable Mentions: Kevin Durant, Gordon Hayward, Kawhi Leonard
Dishonorable Mentions: Kent Bazemore, Wesley Matthews, Marcus Morris
No. 2 Small Forward: Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls
Unassisted Points Per Game: 17.75
Points Created by Assist Per Game: 10.52
Playmaker Rating: 102.36
Just imagine what Jimmy Butler might do if the Chicago Bulls were capable of making jumpers.
The team's lone superstar is already averaging 24.6 points (the vast majority of which are self-created) and 4.8 assists, but those dimes aren't producing as many points as they should. With 10.52 points created by assist per game, he's checking in at a meager 2.19 points per assist.
The NBA as a whole? It's producing 2.36 points per dime. That's from extra three-point shooting the team with the league's worst marksmanship (these Bulls) can't produce.
If we arbitrarily bumped up Butler to the typical mark, he'd have a playmaker rating of 105.29. And while that wouldn't push him into the same ballpark as the top finisher at his position, it would make him the league's second-best playmaking wing. Right now, he trails DeMar DeRozan by a small margin.
Butler is doing everything he can while not blessed with a superhuman set of skills. He's scoring with volume and efficiency despite having to create so many of his own looks, and he's serving as a facilitator on a team that's had so much trouble at the point.
The total package isn't too shabby for a former No. 30 pick.
No. 1 Small Forward: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
Unassisted Points Per Game: 17.91
Points Created by Assist Per Game: 20.8
Playmaker Rating: 113.64
Playmaker rating naturally favors point guards, since they have the ball in their hands and are able to distribute and work off the dribble more frequently. Of the league's top 30 playmakers (not using the 15-possession minimum), only LeBron James (No. 15) and the top finisher at power forward (No. 26) line up somewhere other than the 1.
But playing small forward hasn't stopped James from emerging as one of the best passers in NBA history. He's able to generate assists few players could even dream up, like the "Punch Snap Hammer" feed that ESPN.com's Dave McMenamin meticulously detailed in early January.
Whether James is whipping the ball across the half-court set, finding open lanes in transition or making tough assists seem routine, he's always looking to get his teammates involved. And it's working better than ever, as he's averaging a career-high 8.6 dimes.
Throw in his ability to leverage physicality while excelling as an unassisted scorer, and you have everything you could want in a playmaking forward. Only James' penchant for racking up unnecessary turnovers keeps him from earning a mark that would challenge the league's top floor generals.
No. 3 Power Forward: James Johnson, Miami Heat
Unassisted Points Per Game: 6.13
Points Created by Assist Per Game: 7.93
Playmaker Rating: 90.75
Though head coach Dwane Casey has done a fantastic job with this year's Toronto Raptors, he stunted James Johnson's growth during their mutual time north of the border. His counterpart with the Miami Heat, Erik Spoelstra, has done the opposite, unlocking Johnson's full potential as a multifaceted offensive contributor.
The veteran forward doesn't often post gaudy scoring totals. But when he does, it's because he finds success in spot-up situations, not because he's suddenly breaking down defenders off the dribble more than a few times per game.
He especially thrives when allowed to serve as a secondary playmaker, however.
"That's one of the reasons we really liked him, was the versatility," Spoelstra said about Johnson, per Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun Sentinel. "He probably had no idea how much we liked that versatility and how much we planned on trying to maximize that, and then having an open mind to it."
Blake Griffin and Paul Millsap, both of whom function as honorable mentions in these rankings, receive far more hype for their passing. But it's Johnson's ability to dish out a career-high 3.3 assists per game—many of which result in easy threes on kick-outs from the paint—while keeping his turnovers in check that allows him to the center stage.
Honorable Mentions: LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin, Paul Millsap
Dishonorable Mentions: Serge Ibaka, Ersan Ilyasova, Kristaps Porzingis
No. 2 Power Forward: Julius Randle, Los Angeles Lakers
Unassisted Points Per Game: 7.91
Points Created by Assist Per Game: 9.62
Playmaker Rating: 96.34
When Julius Randle entered the NBA, every defender knew exactly what he was going to do: drive to the left so he could use his strong hand, then force up a shot even if the opposition guessed correctly.
Randle still doesn't have much confidence going right, but he's managed to mitigate these concerns by developing his passing chops. Now, defenders remain off balance because they don't know if he'll finish the play himself or hit a cutting teammate.
With this improvement has come increased responsibility.
Head coach Luke Walton routinely lets Randle handle the ball in transition, and the power forward is trusted to initiate offense in the half-court set. This newfound importance has allowed him to accelerate his offensive development, and it's made him a distinct triple-double threat.
Randle is averaging "only" 12.8 points, 8.2 rebounds and 3.7 assists during his third professional season (his second full one, since he played only 14 minutes as a rookie before a fractured tibia ended his campaign).
But he has explosive upside. Twice this year, he's gone for a triple-double—something only Giannis Antetokounmpo, Draymond Green, LeBron James, DeMarcus Cousins, James Harden and Russell Westbrook have pulled off.
No. 1 Power Forward: Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
Unassisted Points Per Game: 3.4
Points Created by Assist Per Game: 17.31
Playmaker Rating: 105.52
Was there any doubt?
Draymond Green rarely scores without another member of the Golden State Warriors setting him up, but he doesn't need to for a high finish in playmaker rating.
He's that good as a distributor, routinely serving as an initiator for the league's most dominant offensive outfit.
Whether Green is pulling down a rebound and sprinting in transition with his head up in constant search of the right pass or running a pick-and-roll that leaves him with multiple options, he's often playing with the ball in his hands. And though turnovers can dampen his production some nights, he usually makes the right calls.
Compared to the league's other power forwards, Green's passing verges on unfair. He creates so many points per game off assists—boosted, no doubt, by Golden State's three-point proclivities—that he could refuse to score and emerge with one of the position's top playmaker ratings.
That's not an exaggeration: If he used just as many possessions but missed all his unassisted shots, he'd fall behind only Julius Randle and James Johnson, dooming the same three players to the list of honorable mentions.
No. 3 Center: Al Horford, Boston Celtics
Unassisted Points Per Game 5.1
Points Created by Assist Per Game: 12.82
Playmaker Rating: 86.06
"If [Al Horford's] current numbers hold up, he'll become the first center in NBA history to post an assist rate higher than 24 percent beside a turnover rate that's lower than 11 percent," Michael Pina wrote for Bleacher Report near the end of January. "For this season, he leads all centers in potential assists, assists and passes made. He's the ideal pickup partner."
Only an unwillingness to score off the bounce prevents Horford from rising even higher in these rankings. He's far more comfortable spotting up from the elbows or running pick-and-rolls that leave him around the hoop than he is working off the dribble and eschewing his teammates' assistance.
But Horford's passing can't be criticized. It's what allowed him to serve as a secondary hub for the Atlanta Hawks during his time under head coach Mike Budenholzer, who gave him the freedom to veer away from designed plays if new opportunities emerged.
Brad Stevens, Boston's signal-caller, has granted Horford a similar luxury. He's trusted as a playmaker when Isaiah Thomas isn't lighting up scoreboards, and that decision usually pays off. Few centers are better at directing the show when action slows down, which adds a new element to an already-dangerous Celtics offense.
Dishonorable Mentions: Andre Drummond, Myles Turner, Hassan Whiteside
No. 2 Center: Mason Plumlee, Portland Trail Blazers
Unassisted Points Per Game: 4.54
Points Created by Assist Per Game: 9.48
Playmaker Rating: 88.98
Mason Plumlee doesn't use enough possessions to finish higher, but he maximizes what he's allotted. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum eat up most of the Portland Trail Blazers' time with the ball, and even they rely on the big man's burgeoning playmaking skills.
The Duke product still doesn't create much of his own offense. Though he's scoring a career-high 11.1 points per game, 74.2 percent of his buckets are the product of an assist—usually because he's setting a high screen and rolling toward the rim as he awaits a feed.
But his ability to squeeze the ball into tight spaces is exemplary.
Plumlee's knack for hitting backdoor cutters makes life nice for his guards, as they can catch their defenders napping and then burst toward the hoop for easy finishes. He's also comfortable dribbling in the open floor and can feed the ball to the open man while on the move.
Head coach Terry Stotts just doesn't need to use Plumlee like some other teams use their skilled bigs, which may be the only thing holding him back from an even better score.
No. 1 Center: Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Unassisted Points Per Game: 7.07
Points Created by Assist Per Game: 9.09
Playmaker Rating: 89.99
Handing the keys to Nikola Jokic unlocked the Denver Nuggets offense, allowing it to become one of the NBA's most dangerous. Since he re-entered the starting five on Dec. 15, Denver has produced a 113.7 offensive rating—the league's top mark.
Jokic is able to score without an assist, thanks to a growing arsenal of post moves and touch when he's facing up from mid-range zones. But it's his passing that's even more special, as he can routinely drop the rock into the perfect spot.
"It's easy [to cut when playing with a passing big]," Wilson Chandler told Bleacher Report in December. "Sometimes you get offenses where you feel like you're cutting for no reason, but he [Jokic] definitely gives you a feeling, makes you want to cut so you might get the ball and score."
Few bigs have ever been able to softly place the ball when a player is cutting toward the hoop with a defender in the middle, but Jokic makes that difficult play look easy. The same is true when he's lumbering down the floor in transition, keeping his eyes peeled for a potential dime with style that reminds viewers of Magic Johnson.
"He gets so much done with such efficiency of motion," Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle said about Jokic. "It's just amazing. And his skill level with shooting and passing is as good as anybody in the game at that position."
He may be just 21 years old, but he's already emerged as the NBA's best playmaking 5.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.